Formal Descriptions and a Different Reality

Julian Humphries jmh3 at CORNELL.EDU
Wed Nov 22 14:26:32 CST 1995

Botanists, zoologists and systematists of all flavors:

There has been much traffic in the last few days on the exact format and
nature of new taxon descriptions.  Although most of the discussion
concerned botany, there is little conceptual difference in plants and

Consider the hypothetical scenario presented below as a possible "your
worst nightmare" view of what might happen if we continue to spend
significant amounts of our time arguing about the arcane aspects of
species descriptions.  Don't get me wrong here, I have little specific
complaint with either these discussions or the needs and concerns of
practicing taxonomists for accurate, accessible descriptions of new taxa.
I am just concerned that our traditionally conservative nature of assuming
that change is dangerous may not serve our science or our desires in the
long term.

Headline in January 27, 1998 Science:  Molecular Systematic Community
announces new system of nomenclature.

In a shocking announcement today the newly created Organization for
Molecular Taxonomy (OMT), a consortium of several university and privately
funded molecular systematic labs, announced that they were completely
discarding the formal constraints of all existing nomenclature
organizations. Organization President and CEO, Marion Bumblebuss said, "We
just couldn't wait on those guys to get their act together, we have 70,000
new species of nematodes ready to go and they wanted us to create Latin
names for each."  Driving this announcement was the recently enhanced
technique of molecular diagnosis, allowing complete and rapid specification
of divergent sequences for "grab" samples from the environment.  Although
the technique currently has primarily been applied to soil samples, rumour
has it that marine planktonic sampling is the next hot area of research.

Departure from traditional paper based publication of new taxa occurs in
two ways, elimination of a requirement that species descriptions be paper
based and elimination of the long cherished binomial system.  Dr.
Bumblebuss explains: ".. we decided that the the main problems with
current practice, restricting valid names to those occuring in published
paper journals and the need for a properly formed name based on dead
languages had a common solution.  Our new system assigns a URL (uniform
resource locator)identification to every new species.  These are
internationally and instantaneously available once a new species
descriptions pops out of our system."  When asked now one locates a new
species, Bumblebuss described a classification scheme stored in object
oriented databases that allow both consenus and individual classifications
to be maintained and/or computed.  Because the species descriptions are
themselves in the database, any lab can verify the identity of new
material, test their hypothesis of relationship, or expand the known range
of variation for an existing taxon.

When presented with the views of Ariel Statesmen, describer of 400 new
species of grass, that such a system was illegal and the new taxa would not
be recognized by the scientific or lay community, Dr. Bumblebuss replied:
"Ha, who are we kidding here?  We can publish 1000 new descriptions per
week, more that Dr. Statesmen can publish in a lifetime.  Who has more
money for this work?  What law says we have to follow those rules?  That
community made up their rules and claimed those were the only names that were
valid, well we're a new community and we're making up our rules.  The
piddling million species already described will be eclipsed by us within
two years.  After that, its all downhill for those dinosaurs."


Yea, yea, this is all so much hyperbole and science fiction and I am sure
that *somebody* in authority would stand behind us in face of such an
attack.  I bet I made a few technical goofs (anybody know of actual real
laws that say a name has to be like we say it does?) in the above scenario
and maybe those goofs make such a future unlikely.  But I firmly believe we
had best figure out how to do "good" science without restricting ourselves
to methods more suited to Victorian times.  We are replaceable. I don't
like it, you don't like it, but our methodology is not sacred.  No pope is
going to declare it infallible, no nation is going to stake its national
pride on Linnean taxonomy.

When we consider our methodogies, our rules, our "standard" practices, do
we ever ask other communities how they have adjusted to changing
technology?  Certainly we are not alone in facing these kinds of
challenges. If we only turn inward looking for solutions, I fear we will
ultimately fail in adapting to rapidly changing times.

End of tirade and fiction.  Comments are welcome, but most appreciated
would be suggestions on how we can make *positive* changes in our
productivity and science.

Happy naming, Julian Humphries

Julian Humphries
Ecology and Systematics, The MUSE Project
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853
Phone: 607-257-8143    Fax: 607-257-8109

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